Hoarding: Are Fair Housing laws in play?

By Caldwell and Kearns | April 10, 2014 | 3 min. read

April is Fair Housing Month, marking a heightened awareness of discriminatory practices for Realtors® across the Commonwealth, and across the nation. Property management is one area of practice for Realtors® in which Fair Housing questions regularly arise.

You might be familiar with the shows on A&E and TLC that provide a glimpse into the lives of people suffering from compulsive hoarding. It afflicts millions of Americans and causes emotional, psychological, physical, and financial hardships for everyone involved … including the landlord. However, did you consider that Fair Housing laws may protect these tenants? If they are protected and you attempt to evict or penalize them without offering a reasonable accommodation, you may be violating Federal or state laws!

Some jurisdictions consider compulsive hoarding a “disability” for Fair Housing purposes. For example, in 2005, the District of Columbia required a landlord to grant a reasonable accommodation to a tenant who was hoarding by setting a reasonable deadline to clean up their trash. More recently, the Virginia Fair Housing Office has stated that it considers compulsive hoarding to be a “mental impairment” that limits a person’s ability to conduct major life activities. They recommend that landlords who know or suspect that a tenant is a “hoarder” attempt to reasonably accommodate the resident before eviction.

To date, Pennsylvania has not taken an official position on whether it considers individuals who suffer from compulsive hoarding as suffering from a “disability” that requires a landlord to offer reasonable accommodations. Consider whether this disorder substantially limits one or more of a tenant’s major life activities. Consider whether you, the property manager, or the landlord see the tenant as suffering from a mental illness… could that be enough to trigger the protections of the state and Federal Fair Housing Laws?

Realtors® are generally aware that there are both Federal and state laws that govern certain real estate practices. As a property manager, it is important to have a working knowledge of how expansive these protections are, especially when a tenant (or prospective tenant) may be living with a disability. Landlords are required to make reasonable accommodations when an individual is living with a disability; unfortunately, there are no clear guidelines to help landlords (or property managers) define reasonable accommodations.

What constitutes a disability is ever-changing, and Federal and state protections may be different. A disability is defined as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major activities. Cancer, alcoholism, visual impairments, physical limitations and intellectual disabilities have all been classified as “disabilities” for Fair Housing purposes. And the list is growing…

It might be frustrating; it might be confusing; it might be difficult to navigate the swirling waters of Fair Housing. However, we have a right, as Americans and as Pennsylvanians, to choose where we live without discrimination. Realtors® need to remember that hoarding behavior does not mean the person is just messy or lazy. They may be suffering from a very real psychological condition that could trigger Fair Housing protections.

Mr. Woodburn is an attorney with Caldwell & Kearns and serves as associate counsel to PAR. Mr. Swartz is also an attorney with Caldwell & Kearns.  A substantial portion of their practices is dedicated to providing advice and counsel to real estate licensees and representing and defending real estate salespersons and brokers in civil lawsuits and licensing claims across the Commonwealth. They routinely counsel employers on employee relations issues as two of the voices of the PAR Legal Hotline.

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